I served as the head of the Oxford L’Chaim society and rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years from 1988 until 1999. In that time with my organization, I staged large discussions and debates featuring world personalities arguing the great issues of our time in front of hundreds of students. One of the most popular series were debates on science and religion that took place on approximately five occasions, all of which involved leading scientists and religious thinkers, and which Oxford’s noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins participated in. Dawkins and I became friends through these debates. He was always cordial, accessible, and friendly. I grew to like him a great deal–my wife and I even hosted him and his wife at our home for Shabbat lunch.
After returning to the United States with my family, I did not see Dr. Dawkins for a number of years and therefore welcomed the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion with him on science and religion at the IdeaCity Convention in Toronto in the Summer of 2007. IdeaCity is a prestigious media convention that takes place annually. When I arrived I was surprised by Dr. Dawkin’s cool reception of me and his informing me that he could not stay to hear my rebuttal of his remarks, which immediately followed his own. I attributed his coldness towards me to a shift in his perception of people of faith following the publication of his book, “The G-d Delusion,” and many subsequent interviews in which he slams religious people as “know-nothings,” “fundamentalist hypocrites,” “hillbillies,” “vulnerable to subversion,” and “suffering from a delusion.”
I had tried to make some overtures to Dr. Dawkins in the interim years and had not received a response, so I decided to just accept that we had drifted apart. Fast forward to about a month ago when for, no reason, Dawkins attacked me on his website and denied that he and I had ever debated. My office quickly posted the full footage of a two hour debate which took place on October 23, 1996, a debate which Dawkins actually lost after a vote taken by the students as to which side, science or religion, caused more students to change their minds. In my article on the subject responding to his attack I was extremely respectful of Dr. Dawkins and was therefore shocked to receive a letter in return in which he accused me of speaking like Hitler. Had the noted scientist lost his mind? Hitler? Was this for real? Did a world-renowned scientist just compare me to the history’s most reprehensible monster? And was this the man who attacked religion constantly for not being based in fact? This monumentally libelous and loathsome assault boggled the mind. What kind of decent and educated person would compare a colleague with whom they disagree to Hitler?
I wrote to Dawkins again very respectfully and gave him the opportunity to apologize. Instead he invoked the comparison again.
I would encourage all our readers to look at the video of the IdeaCity convention. Where Dawkins heard Hitler, I believe you will find a humorous, well-argued response to his dismissal of G-d and faith that was extremely well-received by the highly educated and influential audience to whom it was delivered. Certainly, the press reports of the speech which are available online were extremely laudatory and Moses Znaimer, the celebrated Canadian media personality who convened the conference wrote to me, “With your terrific contribution to [the conference] still ringing in my ears, I’d like to send you my formal thanks… We’ve had great feedback about the conference as a whole and you are certainly one of the top reasons why.”
You can see the rest of the postings between me and Dr. Dawkins and judge everything for yourself. My main point through all this is that science and religion need not be enemies and atheists and people of faith can get along just fine, so long as we all behave with mutual respect and civility. Disagreement need not lead to hostility and we dare never allow ourselves to descend into hatred.
Oh, I also gave Dr. Dawkins the opportunity to even score by accepting a further debate, at the time and place of his choosing (within reason, of course), to which he has yet to respond.
This storm in a teapot deserves little time or attention from me, and less from anyone else, so I hope this can be the last word. I’ll reply to a few details in Rabbi Boteach’s diatribe, before turning to his main complaint.
“I served as the head of the Oxford L’Chaim society and rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years from 1988 until 1999.
Shmuel Boteach was a rabbi who moved from America to the city of Oxford, where he lived for 11 years. He never had any official status in the University of Oxford. He arrived and bought a house. As anybody is free to do, he ran a club, which Oxford students were free to join.
“[Dawkins] was always cordial, accessible, and friendly. I grew to like him a great deal–my wife and I even hosted him and his wife at our home for Shabbat lunch.”
That is true, and I always found him friendly too.
“When I arrived [in Toronto] I was surprised by Dr. Dawkins’ cool reception of me and his informing me that he could not stay to hear my rebuttal of his remarks, which immediately followed his own.”
I am astounded that Shmuley should find my reception of him [in Toronto] cool. On the contrary, I felt rather warm towards him, having not seen him for a number of years. I had explained to the organizers when accepting their invitation that I would have to leave Toronto on Day One of the conference, after Shmuley’s talk. Unfortunately, however, the program ran late, and it ran even later when, to my intense frustration, the organizers invited some kind of yoga teacher onto the stage to lead us through various posturing poses (which were doubtless designed to reduce frustration). I was in the row behind Shmuley, and I passed him a very friendly, cordial note, explaining that I had to catch a plane, and regretting very much that I couldn’t stay to hear his talk. I had no idea at that stage that his talk was going to be a ‘rebuttal’ of mine. There was no suggestion in the official program that this would be the case. It was never billed as anything like a ‘debate.’ We were simply scheduled to speak on the same afternoon, along with several others.
As it happened, my airport taxi was late and, all unknown to Shmuley, I was therefore able to hear most of his speech, relayed to a small loudspeaker outside the theater. I didn’t like what I heard, but that is another story.
I remembered many other Oxford debates in which Rabbi Boteach was the chairman, and I am sorry that the one debate in which he was a protagonist seems to have made no impression at all upon my memory (it was twelve years ago). My (apparently) unforgivable lapse was exacerbated by the fact that Shmuley himself stated, in the Jerusalem Post (April 13th 2008 ) that the debate occurred in St Catherine’s College, Oxford, when in fact it was in Oxford’s Law Library: a trivial lapse of memory on his part which abetted mine, but it is in any case ludicrous to describe any lapse of memory, on either side, as an ‘attack.’ I eventually found a recording of this Oxford debate on Youtube. Unfortunately somebody has now taken it down. Why? Maybe Shmuley could post it again, so we can all enjoy his oratorical style. Which brings me to his main cry-baby complaint – that I compared his style of speaking to Hitler’s. I have already responded to this as follows:
I did not say you think like Hitler, or hold the same opinions as Hitler, or do terrible things to people like Hitler. Obviously and most emphatically you don’t. I said you shriek like Hitler. That is the only point of resemblance, and it is true. You shriek and yell and rant like Hitler. Not all the time, of course. You also tell very good jokes, and tell them brilliantly. You deservedly get lots of laughs, as a good comedian should. But throughout your speeches you periodically rise to climaxes of shrieking rant, and that is just like Hitler. Incidentally, Dinesh D’Souza yells and shrieks in just the same way. I suppose it impresses some people, although it is hard to believe.
Anybody who has something sensible or worthwhile to say should be able to say it calmly and soberly, relying on the words themselves to convey his meaning, without resorting to yelling. Hitler had nothing but nonsense to say. He spoke nonsense about race, nonsense about history, nonsense about Jews. If one speaks nonsense in a calm and sober voice nobody listens, so Hitler yelled his nonsense at the top of his voice and, unfortunately, people listened — stupid, ignorant people. You have sensible things to say about sex and love, and you have no need to yell when you are talking sense. Unfortunately, when you turn to the subject of evolution, you don’t know what you are talking about, so you yell and shriek to make up for it. Maybe yelling and shrieking works with an ignorant audience. It apparently worked for Hitler, but that is not a happy precedent. You should know better. Go and read some books about evolution, learn something about biology, and you’ll then find that you can talk about it in a calm and civilized voice. You’ll find that you won’t need to yell and shriek like a madman, and you’ll be all the more persuasive for it.
Just a piece of friendly advice
All good wishes
A little later, I contributed this further thought to the lively discussion on the same website: –
“It occurs to me that people like Boteach and D’Souza may be honestly unaware that they shriek and yell in such an unbecoming way. Maybe this is just what preachers of a certain kind DO. So people whose profession is to preach, or who live their lives surrounded by preachers, just don’t hear their ugly yells and shrieks as we do. They have become so inured to the preaching style of yelling that the resemblance to Hitler passes them by. They just can’t hear it. There’s a partial analogy with rock musicians who live their lives surrounded by giant amplifiers, so their hearing is literally impaired and a given decibel level just doesn’t sound as loud to them as it really is. I’m not suggesting that Boteach and D’Souza have literally damaged their ears. But at a higher cortical level they may have become desensitized through years of preaching, and exposure to preachers, so they don’t hear, and literally and honestly don’t understand, the strong resemblance to the hideous vocal style of Hitler. Once again, I need to emphasize that the comparison with Hitler is limited to vocal style. OF COURSE nobody is suggesting that either Boteach or D’Souza have similar opinions to Hitler, or resemble him in any other way at all. But imagine listening to a Boteach speech or a D’Souza speech or a Hitler speech with no knowledge of English or German. I suspect that you’d hardly notice the difference. Contrast it with a speech by Christopher Hitchens. The voice is strong, even a little thrilling. But there’s no hysteria there. The words match the content: measured, thoughtful, strong and powerful but never hysterical.
My suggestion (that the Boteach / D’Souza / Hitler shriek is just a normal preaching style of rhetoric) goes hand in hand with the suggestion I made in my open letter to Shmuley, that there is some kind of inverse relationship between the sensible content of a speech and the decibel level needed to sway an audience. The more you really have to say, the less loudly you need to shout, and vice versa. Religious preachers have nothing worthwhile to say, so they make up for it in decibels.”
Instead of saying that Boteach shrieks like Hitler, what I should probably have said is that Boteach shrieks like a preacher (he has even won a preaching competition!) and Hitler too shrieked like a preacher because that is what, in a way, he was.
I am aware that, however just the comparison, there is a kind of taboo against invoking the name of Hitler at all. It’s understandable. Yet Boteach himself is often the first to drag in Hitler’s name, making the preposterous claim that Hitler was an atheist and that his odious behavior stemmed from that alleged atheism. This tactic is lamentably common among religious apologists. Only this week, the Head of the Roman Catholic Church in England made the remarkable statement that Hitler’s regime was “a dictatorship ruled by reason, and where does it lead? To terror and oppression.” Boteach’s own version of this kind of nastiness is to be found in his description, on Beliefnet, of his debate with Christopher Hitchens.
“Even Hitchens acknowledges that the world’s foremost genocides have all been committed by secular, atheistic regimes who maintained the right to determine which lives were worth preserving, and which should be discarded. Hitler murdered at least twelve million. Stalin, another thirty million. Mao, perhaps 40 million. And Pol Pot killed one-third of all Cambodians in the mid-1970s. Indeed, the number of people killed by the secular atheist regimes of the 20th century dwarfs all the people killed in the name of religion from the beginning of recorded history until the present.”
Are atheists in general to be smeared with shared guilt for mass murder and genocide? An obnoxious accusation, and one that needs more substantiation than Rabbi Boteach, or the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, or anyone else, can provide (it’s rubbish, of course, as many have explained, including Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great). Yet Boteach has the barefaced cheek to throw a hysterical hissy fit when I suggest that he shares with Hitler something so relatively trivial as a speech mannerism. Motes and beams come to mind, as do pots and kettles. Which brings us full circle. The storm in this particular teapot has run its course and deserves no more agitation. Peace. Let’s have a nice cup of tea and all calm down.
My comment on the thread covering the latest letter from Dawkins:
It is a storm in a tea cup when we consider the more important issues of science education, and the role of faith in society.
I am glad to hear Richard that you recognise that the Hitler comparison was a taboo comment that could have been avoided; it allowed Boteach to miss the substantive issues you raised in your open letter and I hope those other remarks are not lost when people talk about the letters.
Boteach does make obnoxious remarks about atheism, and false views of evolution. As for Murphey it is enough for us all to go for some chair throwing. Our focus needs to be in showing up these things for what they are.
I now intend not to comment further on the Boteach/Dawkins affair.